Thunderbirds Flight – Frame Grabs!

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Rod Rakic and I just recorded the initial reaction episode and I’m working on editing it down. We also just got the video figured out. Here are some frame grabs courtesy of Will Hawkins.

Here’s a shot on the runway and ready for departure. Thumbs up!

Pulling up and flattened out by 4-5 gees as we climb for 10,000+. (And get there a few seconds later!)

Rolling to have a look at the airport below. That’s KBTL back over my left shoulder.

I’ll be editing down the episode that Rod and I just did with the idea of getting the episode posted sometime tomorrow morning. Stay tuned!

Thunderbirds Flight – The Ride and Thoughts from the Ramp

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These are the show notes to an audio episode. You can listen online right here by clicking:

Photography by Tim Reed.

Radio and other audio media: Download the takeoff audio to run with my interview at (1MB).

I got the Thunderbirds ride! Unbelievable! Didn’t want to get too excited because anything can happen from a schedule change to a malfunction at the hold-short line. But it happened!

And get this . . . I have 1.0 hours dual received in the logbook! In the F-16D. If it gets any better than this, I’m not sure I can handle it.

Here’s the deal. I’m posting the best of the pictures here this morning. Then I’m heading for the airshow to shoot more pictures and interview an Air Force recruiter in connection with the Thunderbirds story. After the airshow, I head home and Rod Rakic (CAPblog publisher, fellow CAP captain and Air Force aviation enthusiast) and I are going to sit down and hangar-fly the whole thing from beginning to end to talk about the experience. I think that will be a great way to make sure that I get the whole experience brain-dumped early on and then I can do a summary episode with the audio (and, yeah, as soon as I can get the video drivers to work, I’ll post video!) this week later on.

Anyway, above is the briefing with Maj Tony Mulhare, No. 8, the advance pilot and a narrator for the team. He briefed me on all of the procedures around 2:00.

The walk to the aircraft with Maj Mulhare and SSgt Kristi Machado. We launched just before the team’s demo for the afternoon, so we went up just before the diamond launched. 350 KIAS to the end of the runway and then a 4-5-g pull vertical to 10,000 feet or so within a few seconds. I got to see the diamond launch from 15,000 feet above.

In-cockpit briefing with Maj Mulhare. Somehow, I don’t remember arming the ejection seat as being a checklist item on any other flight! The briefing is mainly about things not to touch and a few things to touch. I had control of my oxygen and the COM radios. COM1 for ATC (Minneapolis Center for most of the ride) and COM2 for the discreet frequency for the team so we could hear the demo going on.

After the flight with Maj Mulhare in front of F-16D No. 8.

Receiving the nine-gee pin. I’ll get a macro lens at some point and post a picture of it. Only those who have pulled nine gees with the USAF Thunderbirds get to wear this baby.

Look for more audio Sunday morning as I post the episode with the full download of the experience!

A Picture Is Worth . . .

A picture is worth . . . Well, you get the idea. And, in fact, I’m in the process of writing a thousand words (several of them) both for the blog and for print and other media. Hope to have a post and episode out tomorrow morning.

I’ve also planned a very special episode to initially tell this story. I’d like to have as much of this up as possible as soon as possible – at least the first thoughts and gut reactions, and that probably means that the usual sitting down on and off for a week won’t work. So I thought I’d ask Rod Rakic (of CAPblog fame) to turn the tables and interview me about the experience. I think that’ll get the information out in an efficient and constructive way.

Rod’s very knowledgeable and should be able to pull a little more information out of me that I think I’d get to you solely through the keyboard and I think it’ll work well. It’s a little experimental, but that’s okay. It’s called for. This is new territory for the show and this approach seems promising. We’re scheduled to record tomorrow night.

In the meantime, I’ll write and post some more pictures by tomorrow morning.

More soon!

Thunderbirds Ride . . . Almost. (But Catch Me Tomorrow!)

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These are the show notes to an audio episode. You can listen online right here by clicking:

Photography by Tim Reed.

Okay, I can go on radar with you guys. For the past two weeks or so, I’ve been designated the alternate media flyer with the USAF Thunderbirds at the Battle Creek Field of Flight Air Show and Balloon festival. I didn’t want to make a big fuss before this because, after all, I was the alternate. Jeff McAtee of WWMT NewsChannel 3 was the primary.

So, after a couple of weeks of working very hard to not wish ill things on Jeff or his car or . . . (you get the idea), I arrived at the appointed time and place to find Jeff’s wife and daughter there (and, therefore, very likely Jeff – healthy and ready to fly). Bummer, but that’s okay. I was always only the alternate.

Then Suze Nanos-Gusching (Battle Creek Airshow Media Director) pulled me aside. “Steve, I think you’re going to get your media flight.”

SSgt Russ Martin (Chief, Media Relations, USAFADS) walked me into the Western Michigan university College of Aviation Building. It seems that Jeff didn’t have a camera crew with him (probably covering the pretty extensive damage caused by the storms in West Michigan the day before). No camera crew, no ride, apparently (which makes sense because you want to have as much coverage of the process as possible to show your audience).

So the idea was that I would suit up and, if Jeff’s camera crew didn’t arrive, I’d fly. Be careful what you wish for, folks! If circumstances align and you make sure that you’re in the right place, you’re liable to get what you wish for.

I met with the flight surgeon, Maj. (Dr.) Charla Quayle first and she did a quick medical exam. Took my blood pressure, listened to my lungs and heart, and asked a pretty thorough battery of questions. I was reeling pretty heavily from the thought of going flying in an F-16, but my blood pressure behaved itself (diastolic pressure of 80). My hear rate was up pretty well, though!

Then I went to get into my zoom bag. You war your own underwear, your own tee shirt, and your own socks. Then it’s the zoom bag. I think Jeff was my size and that I got the next smaller zoom bag. A little tight, but not bad. After all, the gee suit is going to make any tightness of the zoom bag academic.

Here, I’m getting fitted with my gee suit. It will inflate to apply pressure to my calves, thighs, and abdomen to keep the blood from rushing out of my head in high-gee maneuvers. We’ll be pulling nine gees at some point in the flight (at which point I’ll weigh as much as some of the training aircraft in which I’ve flown), so I’m very glad to have the gee suit. In the photo, they’re lacing up the back. The suit also laces up the back of the legs. Once all of the lacing is done, you use snaps and zippers to take it off and put it back on.

Here, I’m finding out about the life support equipment, namely the oxygen mask. By the way, that’s not a cigar in my mouth. It’s a pretzel rod. You want to be good and hydrated and have some carbs in your body before flying to assure the best gee tolerance. I put away more than two gallons of liquids before the suit-up and munched on pretzels throughout.

Claustrophobia? Fortunately not me (or at least not around the face). This mask seals around your face and there’s a valve somewhere along the way that requires you to consciously suck in air and blow it out. A little Darth Vader-esque, but very, very cool looking. If you were just taking this as a lark before, the helmet and mask will dispel that notion. It’s a reminder that you’re heading into environments that require life support and involve forces and attitudes that most people can’t imagine.

The tip of the spear is serious business, ladies and gents. If you don’t get that feeling the first time you put on the helmet, hear the world outside all muffled and disconnected, seal the mask around your face, pull down the visor, and have to consciously push and pull your breath through the valve, I don’t know what to tell you. I get the feeling that this is just the first of many indicia like that.

Here’s SSgt. Russ Martin. He and the whole Thunderbirds team made the whole thing a great experience. It’s clear that they’ve done this a few times before and have evolved this whole ritual to impress upon the rider how special this experience is.

So here’s the deal. I didn’t fly. Jeff’s camera crew arrived in the nick of time. i saw Jeff’s flight take off as I left the field. 4-5 gee climb off the end of the runway. Gorgeous! I hope Jeff had a great flight. He’s a great guy and deserved to fly.

But the good news (really good news, in fact) is that I’m supposed to report at 1:30 tomorrow for setup of my life support system and final fitting and then, around 3:30, I’m scheduled to go up with No. 8, Advance Pilot and Narrator Maj. Tony Mulhare. How cool is this?

I’ll post on both the blog and the podcast as I’m able. I’ve been recording audio all through the process and will piece it together cogently as I have the opportunity.

Watch this space!

The Photographic Stylings of Jay Bolyard

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I ran into Jay Bolyard of Canton, Michigan at the Battle Creek Balloon Festival and Field of Flight Air Show last weekend. He had a huge lens and seemed to know what he was doing, so I gave him a card and asked him if he wouldn’t mind sending along a few shots. And here they are! Above is the diamond and the solo (1-5) against one of the beautiful white puffies that floated over the show both of the two days.

The diamond in a low pass.

The diamond in a climb preparing for another maneuver.

A beautiful heritage flight with a P-51 Mustang an an F-16C. Maj Jason Koltes (who appears in a recent episode) is the F-16 pilot.

All images are ©2007 Jay Bolyard. You can reach Jay at